Czech Presidency gives the EU a valuable opportunity to re-think ‘Farm to Fork’
The Czech Republic has assumed the Presidency of the EU Council at a critical moment for the bloc, which is struggling to find answers to the conflicting demands posed by the ongoing war in Ukraine, skyrocketing energy and food prices and a stalling climate agenda. Its six-month reign launched on 1 July with a high-level meeting between its government and the European Commission to discuss its Presidency’s political priorities, as well as the wider issues facing the continent.
Notably absent from these five priorities is sustainable agriculture, a major component of the EU Green Deal that has taken a back seat since the emergence of the food crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine. Štěpán Černý, the Czech government’s director-general for European Affairs, has recently suggested that the EU should put Farm to Fork on hold temporarily and that the Czech Presidency should instead focus on driving up Europe’s food production.
Farm to Fork not fit to meet the immediate challenges posed by the war in Ukraine
The basic idea it to use this six-month pause on Farm to Fork – the EU’s flagship sustainable food strategy – to manage the immediate impact of the war in Ukraine on the global food supply chains, while maintaining a long-term commitment to green Europe’s food system. Černý’s desire to use the Czech Presidency to “reorient the strategic thinking” around the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy presents a much-needed opportunity for the bloc to reassess the flawed and outdated elements of Farm to Fork and adapt them to post-Ukraine war realities.
The most obvious of these realities is that pursuing Farm to Fork’s headline 2030 targets – namely to halve pesticide usage, cut chemical fertilizers by 20% and boost organic farming to 25% – would significantly decrease the EU’s food production capacity and increase both consumer and producer costs at a time when the war in Ukraine is driving severe inflation in Europe and shortages in certain import-dependent countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Given that the war has no end in sight, the EU must revise its Farm to Fork targets and support its member states to ramp up agricultural production, not only to stabilise its domestic prices but also to increase its exports to regions facing extreme food insecurity due to Putin’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Nutri-score: An upcoming decision with long-term implications
In addition to its sustainable agriculture targets, another major component of Farm to Fork that requires revisiting is the question of a harmonised, EU-wide, Front of Package (FOP) nutrition labelling system. The principle behind a unified nutritional label is sound—providing consumers with easy-to-read information on the nutritional value of food products in a bid to tackle obesity and unhealthy diets.
The problem, however, is that some of the systems put forward for contention, in particular the French-backed Nutri-score, fall short of the mark. Nutri-score’s misleading colour and letter grading system – which is informed by a scientifically unsophisticated algorithm that penalises fat, sodium and sugar content based on an arbitrary 100g or 100ml serving – fails to take into account the health benefits of these nutrients in moderate quantities as part of a balanced diet. As a result, European heritage foods that are naturally high in fat or sodium, such as Spain’s manchego cheese, Greece’s olive oil, Italy’s prosciutto ham and France’s Roquefort cheese, receive unjustly negative Nutri-scores that pose a real threat to the sales of local producers recovering from the economic catastrophe of the pandemic.
With the European Commission’s final decision on an EU FOP labelling system due by the end of the year, the Czech Presidency has arrived at the right moment. Czech agriculture minister Zdeněk Nekula, who will chair the EU Agrifish Council until the end of 2022, has voiced his clear opposition to Nutri-score, declaring that he is “not enthusiastic about the traffic light system of Nutri-score” and that he considers the main alternative, NutrInform Battery, “much better,” presumably due to the latter’s more nuanced design.
While discussing the broader Czech vision for agriculture, Nekula also commented on how EU agricultural policy tends to favour large agrifood businesses over small local producers. This view is consistent with critics of Nutri-score who point out the unfair advantage that it gives to industrial food producers, which – unlike local producers of single-ingredient or protected designations of origin (PDO) products – are able to alter the contents of their processed food products to improve their Nutri-scores.
A future for EU agriculture that works for producers, consumers and the environment
But Nutri-score is just one example of this systemic flaw. In the lead up to the Czech Presidency, Nekula rightly called for a new EU approach to agriculture “to swing the pendulum” in the opposite direction so as to balance its support of the sector, including by reducing the subsidies given to large agricultural companies.
So a renewed vision of EU agricultural policy will need to provide better support to local producers, but it will also need to balance short-term food security needs and long-term climate goals. The widespread roll-out of precision farming – the preference of the Czech Presidency – could be a key part of the solution.
Through its use of innovative crop and animal monitoring technology, precision farming allows the agricultural sector to boost production while reducing costs and key inputs, including pesticides and water. While this approach to farming allows for increased profits and production, lower consumer prices and improved environmental outcomes, it is costly and requires a high level of technical expertise, so the EU would need to provide small producers with the necessary funding and technical support.
The flaws of the EU’s Farm to Fork were already apparent before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, but this conflict has significantly magnified them. As the Czech Republic takes the reigns of the EU Council over the next six months, the bloc should seize the opportunity presented by its Presidency’s measured approach to revise its agricultural policy in a way that benefits consumer health and finances, fairly allocates support between small and large producers and avoids pitting climate and food security goals against each other.